127. Dr. David Eagleman Explores the Afterlife and the Limits of Consciousness

The author of, Sum: 40 Tales From the Afterlife, discusses his work as a neuroscientist and author.

sum-by-david-eaglemanJoin Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Baylor College of Medicine Neuroscientist and author, Dr. David Eagleman. During the interview Dr. Eagleman  discusses why survival of consciousness and near death experience (NDE) research isn’t a prominent topic among neuroscientists, “I think it should be front and center. I mean, my impression is that scientists have different personalities and some are quite conservative and they like to stick with the party line. Now, I should specify that what the party line is at this moment in history is reductionism or materialism, which means you are just built out of your pieces and parts and that’s it. When those pieces and parts break and go away, then you go away. That’s a perfectly reasonable hypothesis and may well be right. I’m not criticizing that hypothesis, but I am saying that there are other possibilities, as well.”

Eagleman continues, “I go all around and give talks to my colleagues at universities all around, and what I see in some universities in some places is you’re not even allowed to talk outside of that paradigm. Anything that gets said is really pooh-poohed. So I really admire these guys who are looking for the paradigm-busters.”

Dr. David Eagleman’s website

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Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris.

On this episode of Skeptiko, I have an interview with someone I’ve been trying to get on Skeptiko for a couple of years. Dr. David Eagleman, as you’ll learn, is a neuroscientist from the Baylor College of Medicine who wrote a book a couple of years ago all about the afterlife, but the book was a novel. The book got quite a bit of publicity. I actually heard about him first on NPR, the National Public Radio here in the U.S. The book became a best-seller and he went on to do all sorts of amazing stuff.

But what always got me about his book is as a neuroscientist, how can you write a book about the afterlife and never mention afterlife science, near-death experience science, reincarnation science, any of that stuff? It’s like the only way we can approach this topic is fictional because there isn’t anything really here. I mean, that’s the kind of implication.

So I really wanted to talk to this guy. It took a little bit of pounding and persisting, but eventually he was able to give me a short interview. I wish the interview was longer but it was all the time he had and I’m grateful for it. In the process of doing the interview and doing the research for the interview, I guess my frustration or anger kind of diminished a little bit, especially when I read his book. It’s really well-written. It’s poetic. It’s just a beautiful book in many ways.

But when I got to the core issue in terms of how science can approach this topic, I ran head into The Big Lie. When it comes to psi research in general and near-death experience science in particular, the Big Lie goes something like this-it was first articulated on this show on one of the very early episodes by Dr. James Alcock who’s a psychologist and a well-known skeptic, a public guy, who’s recently been in the news, by the way, as somebody they trotted out to give some outrageously exaggerated counter-argument to Daryl Bem’s article, just an interesting little side note there.

But anyway, very early on in Skeptiko, I had Dr. Alcock on and here’s his version of The Big Lie:

“If we could come up with good data that showed there’s something to the paranormal, parapsychologists would be trampled by psychologists and physicists and so on rushing to the study of it.”

Now, it was actually kind of fun digging up that quote from James Alcock because it reminded me just how naïve I was three years ago when I had that interview. I really thought he was telling the truth. I thought that’s the way things were. I didn’t know it was The Big Lie.

Again, I say The Big Lie because it’s not just a little bit off; the real situation is exactly the opposite, of course, from what James Alcock is saying. The real situation is that if you step out of line, as Dr. David Eagleman alludes to in this interview, if you go into a lot of institutions and you even suggest that you dare contemplate research to talk about consciousness being separate from the brain, well, you are ostracized. You are “out of the club.” What that means professionally is that in a very short period of time you don’t have a job.

I guess that reality is particularly poignant in this case of Dr. David Eagleman because this guy is a rising star. I mean, this guy is where any young neuroscientist would want to be. He’s not just in neuroscience but he’s branching out and getting all the atta-boys and accolades and all the little perks that go with it along the way.

So if he is in a matter-of-fact way saying, “Hey, there’s only certain things I can do here. There are only certain things I can explore,” and if he just says it as an accepted truth, well, that really tells us a lot. But hey, I think I’ve already said way too much about this interview before you’ve had a chance to hear it.

So let’s go to my interview with Dr. David Eagleman:

Alex Tsakiris: We’re joined today by Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman, who by day investigates all manner of fascinating areas of neuroscience and by night cranks out international best-selling works of fiction like Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlife. Dr. Eagleman, thanks so much for joining me today on Skeptiko.

Dr. David Eagleman: Thanks very much.

Alex Tsakiris: So Dr. Eagleman, your book, Sum, has really turned you into somewhat of a rock star among neuroscientists. I mean, concerts with Brian Eno, operas. What’s that whole experience been like for you?

Dr. David Eagleman: It’s been a terrific ride and it’s been sort of unexpected. My book, Sum, I tried to get it published for several years and literary agents said to me things like, “You know, we love it but we have no idea how to market a book like that.” So it was really difficult to get published. That’s why when it did get published and then became an international best-seller, it was just what a treat!

Alex Tsakiris: I can imagine. Well, it’s fascinating and what I really want to probe into is it’s obviously a wonderful book. It’s poetic; it’s funny; it’s spiritual, and at the same time it’s irreverent about these topics that are so important.

But in reading it I kept wondering, “Why is this neuroscientist approaching the topic in this way?” I mean, consciousness and particularly survival of consciousness, is somewhat of the elephant in the room when it comes to neuroscience. Why did you do Sum the way that you did it?

Dr. David Eagleman: You know, I think it’s exactly because I’m a scientist. We have tools in science that we can use to try to approach all of the big questions. And of course, I’ve devoted my life to science because it’s the most successful pursuit that we can take. It’s tremendously fruitful.

And yet at some point, the toolbox runs out. When you’re asking the big questions about life and death and meaning, and even something like the survival of consciousness, whether anything does survive or not, well, science can opine on that but in fact it’s really difficult to come up with a test to test it directly.

So I use fiction as a channel for exploring these ideas further, these things that we can’t take care of in the lab we can then speculate on-not in any serious way; not in the way that you’d make a proclamation in science, but just you can entertain these hypotheses. I think it’s part of the scientific temperament to be able to say, “You know, let’s come up with a bunch of wacky ideas and sort of extrapolate them out and see where they go.”

Alex Tsakiris: And I think you did a wonderful job of that. It’s an inspiring book, particularly coming from a scientist it is. I just still wonder whether there isn’t a message in there. Sometimes I got the message from reading the book that maybe these topics can’t be approached scientifically, and I guess I’d like to push on that a little bit. How close can we get to understanding consciousness and particularly the end of consciousness when we die?

There’s a pretty good body of research at this point by some very well-qualified university folks who are looking at survival of consciousness. Aren’t we a little bit closer than maybe you’re letting on? To at least approaching the topic, no matter what we decide at the end of the day the answer is?

Dr. David Eagleman: You know what? That’s a great question you’re asking but I really don’t think so. There are several groups, mine included, that research these issues of consciousness.

But the best of the groups are still on what’s known as the “easy question of consciousness.” The easy question of consciousness is what neural states correlate with what conscious states? So when I’m experiencing the taste of feta cheese, maybe this set of Christmas tree lights lights up in my brain. When I’m experiencing the color red, it’s a different network and so on. That’s the easy question of consciousness.

The hard one is why are those things equivalent? How could it be that the activity of a bunch of neurons, the movement of a bunch of ions, the electrical signals on a bunch of axons, how could this equal the taste of feta cheese? Because once we understand how the pieces and parts map onto that, then we should be able to build things. You can build a brain out of beer cans and tennis balls and you should be able to have that thing experience the taste of feta cheese.

But the fact is, in 2011, we don’t even know what such a theory could possibly look like. There are no mathematics, no physical theories. No computational theories that we have that map physical pieces and parts onto subjective experience. So I would assert we are, despite whatever anyone is saying about what their lab is doing, we don’t have a clue on that difficult problem.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, but we do have these people at the University of Virginia like Bruce Greyson or Jeff Long or Pim Van Lommel or even Sam Parnia, who are saying, “Hey, wait a minute. Perhaps our entire model is off because this consciousness thing seems to be happening when it shouldn’t be happening, in particular when people are supposed to have no conscious experience–when they have a flat EEG.”

I’m going to push that a little bit further and then I’ll move on but why isn’t that front and center in this discussion? It’s kind of a paradigm-buster isn’t it?

Dr. David Eagleman: I think it should be front and center. I mean, my impression is that scientists have different personalities and some are quite conservative and they like to stick with the party line. Some are interested in what’s happening at the fringes because that’s where the big discoveries are going to be made.

Now, I should specify that what the party line is at this moment in history is reductionism or materialism, which means you are just built out of your pieces and parts and that’s it. When those pieces and parts break and go away, then you go away. That’s a perfectly reasonable hypothesis and may well be right. I’m not criticizing that hypothesis, but I am saying that there are other possibilities, as well.

But anyway, I go all around and give talks to my colleagues at universities all around, and what I see in some universities in some places is you’re not even allowed to talk outside of that paradigm. Anything that gets said is really pooh-poohed. So I really admire these guys who are looking for the paradigm-busters. Nine out of ten of these wacky ideas will be wrong but good for them for going on with their chin out. That’s what we all need to be doing.

Alex Tsakiris: And is there any of that playfulness that you bring to that look at the afterlife that you took in Sum, is any of that playfulness grounded in maybe hunches or areas that you would like to explore in another way in terms of where those other paradigms might lead us?

Because I got the sense that that was in there. I got the sense you’ve pulled different pieces not only from spiritual traditions or just from fun fantasy, but also from some areas of fringe science. I want to make sure I wasn’t reading that the wrong way.

Dr. David Eagleman: You’re actually reading it exactly the right way. In fact, all of them were pulled from my scientific grounding. So in fact, none of the ideas in Sum come from any traditional spiritual position except when I’m making fun of them. Everything else is really grounded in science. Essentially every one of the stories came from some idea that I had when I was sitting in the lab.

Here’s just an example. In one of the stories,  in the afterlife you can become anything you’d like to be for your next life. So in this particular story, you choose to become a horse because you covet the bliss of that simplicity, that kind of simple life.

But during the course of the story, as you metamorphose into a horse, what you realize is the more your brain becomes a horse’s brain, the more you’re unable to appreciate what the original wish was. You can’t appreciate the simplicity because you are forgetting the starting point; you’re forgetting what it was like to be a human.

Alex Tsakiris: Fascinating.

Dr. David Eagleman: And that came from an idea I had. Up until recently, when neurosurgeons were going to do an operation on someone, it’s really critical to figure out which hemisphere of the brain contains language because if you nick that in the wrong way, you make a person unable to communicate with the outside world, which is really worse than death if you have no way of communicating.

So to neurosurgeons they say, “There’s the left hemisphere which is the one that usually contains language, and then there’s the hemisphere that’s not the left hemisphere,” by which they mean the left hemisphere is so important.

The thing is, not everybody has language in the left hemisphere. So the way you find this out is by injecting barbiturates into one half of the brain. You essentially numb out one half of the brain at a time. And I was fascinated with this test. I thought, “Wow, I wonder if you could put in barbiturates in just the right way to make your brain into a horse brain?” You’d numb out all the parts until you’re essentially like a horse.

That’s when I realized, “Wow, gosh, if you were a horse you couldn’t appreciate it because you’re now no longer a “you” asking the question.” Anyway, that’s just an example of how a scientific thing that I was thinking about led to a piece of fiction.

Alex Tsakiris: And that’s fascinating too because it has all sorts of links back to reincarnation, imagining stories and anecdotes, as well as the little bit of science that we have from folks like Ian Stevenson.

So Dr. Eagleman, that was a couple of years ago, your book Sum and the afterlife exploration. How has that propelled you into your current projects and what are you up to now?

Dr. David Eagleman: Well, like every scientist, I get to do the really cool, wacky projects and then the spectrum goes all the way down to the daily stuff that I do in keeping the lab running, too.

But on the wacky end of things, one of the really neat areas that I’ve been invested in for about 10 years is in understanding how the brain perceives time. It turns out essentially what my lab has been able to show over the last decade is a whole bunch of illusions of time. It turns out that we can make you believe that something lasted longer or shorter than it actually did or that something came before something else when it was actually the other way around.

What this means is that time is a construction of the brain. It’s not that you’re just passively tracking time; you’re actively constructing it. So that got me interested in what happens when those mechanisms break? Is there such a thing as a disorder of time?

So I’ve been pursuing the hypothesis now that schizophrenia is fundamentally a disorder of time perception, because if you can’t get time right then you’ve got a very fragmented cognition. All of these hallmark characteristics of schizophrenia seem to fall right out of this. So I’m doing stuff like that.

As you may know, I’ve got this ongoing line of research about whether time actually slows down during a life-threatening event. I’ve been studying that in various ways and I continue to study that.

So that’s one aspect of what I do. Another one has to do with synesthesia, which is where there’s a blending of the senses. Where you might say, hear music and it causes you to see colors. That’s a really good in-road to consciousness because it tells us that a very small change in somebody’s genetics can change the way they perceive reality. So I’m pulling the gene for synesthesia right now.

And finally, I’m running the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, which is how are different people’s brains different and how does that matter for society? What do we do about the fact that people see the world very differently and behave very differently?

Alex Tsakiris: And you still find time to write books.

Dr. David Eagleman: That’s right. Well, it’s not easy. I haven’t actually taken a vacation or downtime in several years, now. I’m never not working. It’s full speed. But it’s been extremely rewarding to me and gratifying to find readers all over the world. I get emails from both my fiction and my nonfiction writing where people are pitching in ideas or saying what it meant to them. It’s just what a blast!

Alex Tsakiris: Fantastic. Well, hopefully we’ll bring a few more people to your doorstep. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. David Eagleman: Great. Thanks to you so much.

Alex Tsakiris: Thanks again to Dr. David Eagleman for joining me today on Skeptiko. If you’d like more information about this show or any of our previous shows, please visit the Skeptiko website. It’s at skeptiko.com. You’ll find links to our forum and email and Facebook link to me and all sorts of good stuff.

I have several interesting interviews that I’ve recorded and are ready for broadcast here on Skeptiko, so please stay with me. I have some good shows coming up. But until next time, bye for now.